Roses are red, violets are blue...and human heads are sign of good luck!
By: Virginia Mills - 13/02/2012
As Valentine's Day approaches, discover the unusual way Taiwanese aborigines went about attracting a partner in the 19th Century, and why plant collector Richard Oldham said the Taiwan mountains were too dangerous a place to collect.
The Directors' Correspondence collection contains many letters written by botanical collectors sent out by Kew to far flung parts of the world in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The romance of the intrepid explorer
There is a certain romance to the idea of the intrepid explorer striking out into the unknown and collecting all manner of exotic plants and objects. However, some of the letters in our collection reveal that travelling in remote parts of the world was often far from romantic or idyllic, and could sometimes be downright grizzly.
Photo of arrangement of skulls by the Atayal people, from James Davidson's 1903 work 'The Island of Formosa, Past and Present'. This is how he describes the sight: "After exposure to the rain and ravages of insects and rats the trophies are soon reduced to glistening skulls; and to the stranger are the most striking objects"
The challenges of plant hunting
In the past, botanists often wrote back to Kew to inform their colleagues about why they were being prevented from doing their collecting work. Many of the challenges they described were similar to the sort of every day troubles we might encounter on our own modern travels. Money is tight, the transport is poor, the weather is causing delays – sound familiar?
Richard Oldham was frustrated by all of these mundane difficulties whilst collecting for Kew in China, Japan and Taiwan (then called Formosa) in the 19th Century - when these regions had still only relatively recently been opened to foreigners. But he also encountered a more unusual impediment in the form of the amorous practices of the Taiwanese indigenous people.
The perils of headhunting
In a letter to Kew dated 19 March 1864, Oldham explains why he cannot explore the mountains near Tamsuy (now called Tamsui or Danshui):
"As the spring is the season at which the young savages marry, it is yet unsafe to go as they always fight either with other savages, or Chinamen in order to get heads with which to celebrate their marriages, and it is possible they might take particular liking for the heads of foreigners. It will perhaps be safer to go during the summer".
Headhunting, the practice of taking someone's head after killing them, was a ritualistic part of life for most Taiwanese aborigines until the 1930's. In his 1903 account of the island, James Davidson says that the northern tribe, the Atayals, were the most active head hunters. Oldham was also staying in the North and it may have been these people he feared.
At this time, headhunting practices and their significance varied between peoples, but Davidson records that to the Atayals it was a prominent, essential and honourable part of society and served many functions - such as gaining favour with unmarried women, obtaining rank and bringing luck and protection. The heads themselves were kept in the open air on a narrow platform and never removed.
As Valentines Day approaches, we can be glad that our romantic rituals are more likely to involve displays of flowers and candles than dismembered heads.
- Virginia Mills -
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